“Polly want a taco?” – Frida Khalo
For years, North and Northeast Portland has been one of the few areas where low-income folks, often minorities, could afford to live and maybe even buy a house. They shared these neighborhoods with artists and college students. These areas are now prospering. They’re being flooded with new restaurants. Yet they remain one of the best concentrations of taquerias in Portland proper.
In this edition of the ongoing Portland Mexican food survey, I cover a belly-busting six: three on NE Alberta, Don Pancho, La Sirenita, and La Bonita, and three in North Portland, Michoacan, Por Que No, and Javier’s.
A piled-high sope.
While their market has been around for a while, Don Pancho the taqueria is the new niño on the block — or rather, Alberta Street. Like the market, the taqueria is small and clean, with quality choices.
The menu ranges from the typical antojitos, such as tacos, sopes, and burritos, to less common items such as mojarra frita (whole fried tilapia) and caldo de res (beef soup). Fillings include carne asada (beef), al pastor (marinated pork), pollo (chicken), lengua (beef tongue), and pescado (fish). Prices are the best in the area. Tacos are all $1.25, tortas $3.35, and meat burritos $3.45. The three enchilada plate is an obscenely low $5.50 and the most expensive platter is the carne asada at $7.99. Even the mojarra frita is only $6.99.
They’ve improved since my first visit when the fish taco filling was ground, tasting and looking like sausage. On my last visit, it was one of the best I’ve had in Portland, nice chunks of fillet with a crusty sear and moist, but firm, flesh. Well-seasoned, too.
Meats have been well-cooked on subsequent visits also. There wasn’t much caramelly-yum on the al pastor the first time I had it, but it’s much better now. The carne asada is nicely charred and still moist. (For the carne asada platter, what appears to be skirt steak or another cut with a long grain, is hammered thin and grilled, it seems, just as it would be on the streets of Mexico.)
Tortillas are not made in-house, but are refreshed nicely in a bit of drippings. Sope shells, however, look to be made by hand and fried to order. Bread for tortas is decent, but could be filled a little fuller.
Now that the soup months are fast approaching, the caldo de res may quickly become a favorite. The large bowl is filled with a mild broth, chunks of boiled beef, and larger chunks of vegetables, such as carrots and corn on the cob.
I think many people will appreciate the clean, bright interior and open kitchen. They even have a nice mural on the wall.
2000 NE Alberta St
Chew early and chew long.
When in Mexico, the rule of thumb is that if a puesto — the little food stands that dot the streets of every city — is busy, then it must be good. Or at minimum, the food is fresh. La Sirenita has lines out the door, yet the food is neither good nor fresh.
Years ago I visited this taqueria based on multiple recommendations and was very disappointed, not to return. Over time, as people online and even in food guides would insist that it produced tasty tacos and burritos, I tempered my opinion and just suggested that better food could be had a couple doors down at La Bonita. But I’ve returned for this survey and thankfully I’ve lived to tell the tale.
The food isn’t just mediocre here; it’s bad. Real bad. Meats, such as the carne asada, are dry and relatively flavorless. The tinga is boiled to stringy mush in a one-note tomato sauce without the smokiness that makes tingas so delicious. Is it possible for pork to be gamey? Because their carnitas sure are. Maybe it’s aged pork. Even the salsas are mediocre.
People often claim that it’s a great value, that La Sirenita’s tacos and burritos are cheap. But their taco prices range from $1.25 to $1.75 and most burritos are around $4.00. They do have a wide selection of fillings, including less-common ones such as machaca, desebrada, and the previously mentioned tinga, but that hardly makes up for the fact that they suck. More crap to choose from isn’t a big selling point for me.
To top it all off, it’s not a very clean restaurant. Normally, divish taquerias don’t bother me whatsoever. I’ve had some great meals at the scariest looking fondas in Mexico. But when the food is terrible and the everything is dirty, you start to wonder if the owners have a bit of pride at all. It can’t just be that they don’t know how to cook or that they’re just focused on the eats. They just don’t care a damn bit.
2817 NE Alberta St
Tamal, three tacos, and a side of guac — mmmm.
Just a couple doors east on Alberta, La Bonita is dia to La Sirenita’s noche. While La Sirenita feels like a Mexican prison, cramped, poorly lit, with dirty bare walls, La Bonita is open, clean, and has an attractive mural inside. Bonitas food tastes fresh, is well-seasoned and well-cooked.
First of all, they serve my favorite taqueria tamales in Portland proper. You have to go outside Portland — to de Leon or Ochoa — to find their equal. The masa is relatively fluffy and the fillings flavorful. I also like the fact that they’re quite moist.
They also make a very good classic guacamole. The avocados are mashed leaving some larger chunks for texture. No mayonnaise or other adulterate. Just some tomatoes, maybe some lime and chiles. You can get it as a side order or as an appetizer served with crisp house-made chips.
The fish taco is weak. It’s one bland fishstick along with the usual accoutrements, plus some sour cream. The shrimp taco is a bit eggy, more like scrambled eggs and shrimp rather than the lightly egg-battered and sauteed shrimp I prefer, but still good. The caramelly onions are nice.
Better though, are the meats. The carne asada is well-charred on the outside, but remains moist inside. So is the al pastor, which has a nice, sweet and spicy marinade, as well. It’s not spit-cooked al pastor, but it’s good for its style. The carnitas don’t quite compete with the best of the best, but they are both succulent and crispy, one of the better versions not requiring a trip out to the suburbs.
Tacos are either $1.50 for standard meats or $1.95 for seafood or specialties like machaca and lengua. Burritos are $3.95 and $4.50.
They also make soups from scratch. I haven’t tried their menudo, but the pozole is muy rico. At $5.95 for a large bowl, it’s a good value, too. I wish they made their own tortillas, but they don’t. They also make horchata and jamaica. It still amazes me that with La Bonita literally 10 seconds away by foot from La Sirenita that anyone goes to the latter.
2839 NE Alberta St
Michoacan’s huarache comes as toppings on two thick, housemade tortillas.
The other evening I stopped into Michoacan to try a couple more dishes and interrupted the daughter of the owners celebrating her sixth birthday. She just smiled at me as I sat down, came over, and took my picture, like I was just another guest. While Michoacan advertises tacos para llevar and has a good selection of antojitos, it is also a family restaurant where blue collar Mexicans can bring their kids and hang for hours, eating tasty food while they watch Univision.
The menu has a full range of dishes: breakfasts, such as chilaquiles and huevos rancheros; combination lunches, such as enchiladas and chile rellenos; antojitos, such as burritos, tacos, and tamales; meat dishes, such as bistek ranchero, chile verde, and milanesa; and mariscos, such as camarones a la diabla and mojarra frita. The seafood items sometimes top $10, but even the ribeye dishes do not. Their take-out menu is very different from their sit-down menu and I’ve been frustrated by items not being available, such as the western Mexico style barbacoa.
I’ve stuck mostly to the items one might find in its taqueria competitors: soups and antojitos. The birria is fragrant and meaty, made with goat. The flesh itself is tender. The huaraches, two thick handmade tortillas topped with beans, meat, and lettuce, are huge but not especially good. Both 3 Jalapenos and Ochoa do a much better job. But they are similar to ones I’ve had on the west coast of Mexico. Interestingly, Michoacan doesn’t make carnitas, one of the signature dishes of the region. I’ve even asked if they’re truly form Michoacan and they are. But they do a very good job with carne asada. Whether for a platter or for tacos, the beef is cooked flattened and is well-charred. Tacos are topped with a simple and slightly bland guacamole.
The couple that runs the place has always been very gracious, but be warned that they speak little English. For those with scholarly interests, there’s a large bookshelf of various tomes. I think I recognized some of them from my philosophy classes in college. Next door is a little mercado owned by a different family.
7008 N Interstate Ave
The ceviche served cocktail style.
Por Que No is one of the newest members of the rapidly gentrifying Mississippi Avenue. It’s in a small spot across the street from the Rebuilding Center and just half a block from The Mississippi Pizza Pub. The walls are decorated with Mexican knick-knacks, Virgenes de Guadalupe, colorful crosses, photos of Zapata, etc. It’s a pleasant cantina atmosphere that fits with the neighborhood. You don’t expect Latino day-laborers to be piling in, but you do expect the food to be decent and relatively authentic. And it is.
The menu is split into two main sections: “Tacos” and “Mas” (more). Fillings for tacos include carnitas, tinga, carne asada, pollo verde, verduras, and pescado. The carnitas are quite nice, tender and moist, but could use more crusty bits. The tinga, a beef and chile stew, could have been smokier and spicier. The fish taco is a bit of a disappointment. Despite having nice accompaniments, including a huge pile of cabbage and a nice tomatillo salsa, the fish itself is rather bland. It might as well be a vegetarian taco. Ignore the pescado on the menu and instead look at the specials board.
Por Que No is the only taqueria in this survey to make all its tacos with handmade tortillas. Meat-filled tacos are $2.50 and fish tacos are an expensive $3.50. Prices are close to what you would pay at Taqueria Nueve, but not as distinguished. While the quality is good, the value isn’t.
On the other hand, the ceviche, at $5, is an excellent value. The seafood changes. On my last visit, it was a mixture of shrimp and fish, both of which were perfectly “cooked”, mixed with a little mango, cilantro, and onion. They were topped with a bit of tomato sauce, a hunk of lime and radish on the side. It’s served in a cocktail glass surrounded by freshly made tortillas chips. The chips aren’t as traditional as the tostadas or soda crackers that normally accompany a ceviche in Mexico. But that’s okay. Chips are one of the Mexican-American conventions that needs to be exported back to the motherland. They do need to work on the chips’ consistency. Many were light and crisp, some were a bit chewy, and others were a little soggy. I suspect they either need to remove the oil better after frying or fry at a higher temperature and store them better.
They make fresh pinto beans (frijoles de la olla, $2) and guacamole ($4), both of which are tasty. The guacamole is also served with the chips. On my visits their housemade agua fresca has been jamaica (hibiscus iced tea).
3524 N Mississippi Ave
Are those supposed to be gummy shrimp?
While there’s no direct indication that Javier’s is connected to the Muchas Gracias chain, they, along with Alberto’s in Salem, have very similar menus. There’s a lengthy selection of combination plates. There are rolled tacos, often called taquitos or flautas, and the Oregon burrito, consisting of steak, potatoes, and cheese. All three even use red on yellow lettering and are open 24 hours.
Javier’s is one of the few choices in Portland for any-hour Mexican. The menu is giant and quality inconsistent, fluctuating between terrible and mediocre. Their carnitas are nearly as bad as La Sirenita’s, with that same dry gaminess. Other meats are generally dry as well and their carne asada has little crustiness.
The most interesting items hang as hand-written specials from the main board. But they don’t taste any better. For example, the shrimp tostada ($2.50) had a slightly off flavor and the tiny shrimp were very gummy. I’m not brave enough to test their buche and tripas.
I only visit any of these three mini-chains if I need something cheap in the middle of the night. The chorizo or chorizo and eggs aren’t bad. Also, the Oregon burrito (also called California burrito at Javier’s) is greater than the sum of its parts, much like White Castle’s slider. But tortillas are some of the worst quality outside of a Taco Bell and I’ve never had anything that I would crave.
121 North Lombard